Jenzia Burgos On Creating a New Digital Home for Black Music History

Jenzia Burgos On Creating a New Digital Home for Black Music History

In June, 22-year-old music journalist Jenzia Burgos posted a slideshow on Instagram and wrote, “If you don’t know the history of Black artists behind your favorite music, you don’t really know your favorite music.” The post, which included reading recommendations about music’s Black pioneers in genres like country and electronic music, quickly went viral. The post’s virality inspired Burgos to build the new website Black Music History Library, which collects articles, books, podcasts, and films to outline the Black roots of different popular music genres. Simple and accessible, the still-growing collection of resources felt like something that should have always existed, especially as the music industry has faltered when it comes to interrogating how it segregates Black artists by genre.

Jezebel spoke with Burgos about creating the library, popular misconceptions of “Black music,” and the power of reading lists. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I was thinking, What can I share that hopefully becomes a tool for somebody to use every day?

JEZEBEL: What made you start this project?

JENZIA BURGOS: In June, I shared a post on Instagram [with] the tagline: “Your favorite music exists because of Black people.” In it, I shared a few slides of books and relevant articles for some genres [because] I thought that sometimes people aren’t aware of the Black history tied to those genres; punk, reggaeton, hip-hop, which I thought was obvious, but unfortunately I see too many people whose idea of hip-hop might only be Eminem or Machine Gun Kelly. [Laughs]

The post was a response at the time to seeing lots of social media activism in light of what I like to think of as a spike in terms of an upset around racism in this country. I don’t really love the word “movement.” For people who are constantly living under a racialized state if you’re Black, if you’re brown, the idea of a movement around awareness for racism is interesting because it’s not a movement in your life, it’s something that you just have to deal with every single day. Seeing the intense mobilization of everybody on social media suddenly interested in ways to be aware of this was exciting, but also a bit limiting because I saw a lot of the same posts about how to contact your local Congresspeople, how to approach protests responsibly.

Those were all really important things to know, but at the end of the day I was thinking, What can I share that hopefully becomes a tool for somebody to use every day? I’m not an activist; I’m not an organizer. But I am a music journalist, and I love music. Music is something that’s a part of my life every day and a part of many people’s lives every day. If you’re a music journalist or working in the music industry in any capacity as an artist or on the business side, how can we make that work informed in a way that’s also anti-racist, in a way that’s also honoring Black people and Black life on a daily basis? For me, it’s [about] knowing where this music comes from.

Something I was thinking about when I saw the library is the anti-racist reading lists that have been circulating for the past few months. There was a great Vulture article raising the question of who are these lists actually for because they’re often so vague and genre-hopping. But the music library is very specific in its intent in taking an art form people engage with on a daily basis and pointing out how Black artists are often erased within it. Given the skepticism over reading lists, what power do you think reading has right now in between protests and organizing?

I think that reading can be very restorative in terms of post-protests and for people who can’t go out and protest, people who are immune-compromised or are doing jobs right now where they don’t really have that kind of time or flexibility. I didn’t want every resource on the site to be this super scholarly, highly academic material. That’s why I did include a lot of articles on the site that are from publications meant to be accessible. I really wanted there to be all those options because that way, hopefully, people don’t have an excuse not to look into something. If [people] are more visual learners or they listen better than they can read, having a podcast on in the background can be a great way to absorb information. But I think reading can be a political act. It’s this idea of sitting with something quietly in a room and shutting out the world. It’s a way of honoring scholarship.

I think a blind spot in music scholarship is definitely music largely of the diaspora.

You note on the site that there are other archives and libraries doing similar work but that they can often have a limited view of Black music. What did you see in other Black music archives that you didn’t want to replicate here?

Many Black musicologists have spoken about [academia’s] preference for African-American vernacular music traditions. By that, I mean very U.S.-centric music that is directly of the tradition of American African descendants of slavery. Genres like jazz, blues—and we have people like W. E. B. Du Bois pointing out these traditions as being the American music. And that’s important, and we have all these archives doing that work. I think a blind spot in music scholarship is definitely music largely of the diaspora. We don’t necessarily see the same representation of Black scholars being able to write and research on music of the Caribbean. And when I say the Caribbean, I mean the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the French-speaking Caribbean, the English-speaking Caribbean. We don’t necessarily see the same value system in place for traditional music of actual Africa, the entire African continent. What would get termed Black music in a lot of searches tends to be African American music. It tends to be music that is directly related to that lineage. So I wanted there to be a place where I could consider Black music more widely and include all of these traditions in one place, which is a huge project and challenge.

You mentioned including hip-hop and thinking about those who might only associate that with artists like Eminem and Machine Gun Kelly. Who would you say the library is for?

I hope it’s for lots of people. When I first started really getting into curating these resources, one thing I kept coming back to was how much I wish something like this existed when I was in school. I grew up in the South Bronx and hip-hop is my bread and butter, but my dad is Dominican and he was raised aware of his Black identity and Black history on the island. Whenever I was listening to what would get traditionally termed as Latin music, my dad was always saying, “You hear that beat? That’s because of so and so rhythm that comes from Yoruba.”

But when I was growing up listening to pop-punk, I didn’t know anything about any Black artists in those genres and punk more largely. I didn’t know about the history there because it wasn’t at the forefront of what we get taught. I wish I had a place that listed out all these genres and said, No, there’s a Black history for every single one of these. I’ll say also, I hope that editors at publications will take a look and consider [Black journalists] for commission because that’s really important, too. It was really difficult for some genres to find Black writers who’ve written about this music. That shouldn’t be the case.

I was thinking about Black Out Tuesday, which raised all of these questions about what the music industry owes Black artists. And while there’s no easy, simple answer, it seems like a big part of it is confronting how the industry has obscured or erased Black artists’ contributions. Do you think the more we illuminate these histories, it can change the music industry in the present?

I’m always wary of anything that’s a vehicle of capitalism, and I don’t know that capitalism is necessarily sensitive to wanting to represent people fairly. But if we can get one music executive to see this site and realize that there are Black people in EDM, that there are Black people in country [music], hopefully that suddenly switches on a light switch for them and can lead to a little bit more change. I’m a pessimist. I don’t know if it will really do something tangible for the music industry people in that way, but I do think that it’s worth noting that enough people got mad about the fact that the Grammys used the word “urban” as a category. I think that’s how a lot of accountability works. That said, I don’t think what the Grammys renamed the urban category [as] makes any sense either. But I’m happy if one person sees this site and is like, I didn’t realize this and now I can tell all of my other white friends who listen to country music that there are all these Black artists in this genre.

How do you see the library changing and growing in the future?

I’m looking into a couple of different avenues. I’ve had some people reach out to me and recommend that I try to apply for grant funding to give me a sort of lifeboat and support the site itself, or pursuing partnerships with existing archives to make resources more accessible. Overall, I’m talking to people and getting their feedback and thinking about ways to make it even easier to navigate and to be as wide encompassing as possible. And there is also a newsletter in the works. I’m planning to notify folks when new materials, scholars, journalists, etcetera have been added to the site, along with a brief section to highlight hidden gems and submissions.

Update: This post has been updated for clarity throughout.

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